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Commentary: Committing to a postsecondary success agenda for all

There are some predictable responses to Philadelphia students' disturbingly low rates of college enrollment, but they are not helpful.
  • rochelle nichols solomon student
    Photo: Ronald J. Nichols

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In a few weeks, thousands of Philadelphia public high school students will graduate. They will march down aisles to the familiar and always stirring "Pomp and Circumstance." It will be an exciting day for these students, one that will fill them with a sense of accomplishment and optimism about the future.

But based on the postsecondary enrollment data that the Notebook highlights throughout this issue, that future will include a college education for only a few of those students.

According to college-going data for the fall 2005 cohort of entering 9th graders, only a dismal 25 percent of students from neighborhood high schools enrolled in postsecondary education. The numbers are far below the rate for students from citywide admission schools (41 percent), charters (48 percent), and special admission schools (80 percent).

These data are likely to set off a heated debate about why college enrollment rates are so low. Undoubtedly, they will fuel finger-pointing about the failures of public schools. In particular, they will send shockwaves about the neighborhood high schools.

And despite almost instinctively knowing that some type of formal education beyond high school is a basic requirement in today's society – and an aspiration most readers have for their own children – the data may lead some to think that with these low levels of college enrollment, nothing works … so why bother?

To that question, I would argue that too few students in the neighborhood high schools are enrolling in college because we simply have not prepared them to do so. Despite the hard work of many, we haven't yet achieved a coherent and shared understanding of what it means to be college- and career-ready, or a system aimed at that outcome for all students.

Furthermore, not to advance a college or postsecondary success agenda in schools that serve almost exclusively low-income African American and Latino students is simply making the stick shorter for students and families that are already holding the short end of the stick. It is both morally and economically wrong.

From my experience working with schools and communities all over the country to increase postsecondary success – most recently within the Citi Foundation-funded initiative in Miami, Philadelphia, and San Francisco – educators and community stakeholders will have a lot to say about the data.

Reactions to the data

I can predict those responses will basically fall into four camps.

The first will make the well-intentioned, but low-hanging-fruit argument for focusing on high school graduation. This camp will vigorously shake their heads, reasoning that if students leave school – in other words, drop out – they can't possibly graduate and therefore, have no chance of going on to college. I contend that this reflects low expectations that lead to weak student engagement and high dropout rates – or to students graduating high school who are neither college- nor work-ready.

Some in this same group might also question the value of college, given our current economic crisis. But research suggests that college-educated workers are much more likely to be employed than their high school-educated counterparts, even during a recession. And furthermore, students with a postsecondary education will be better positioned to participate in the economic recovery, which sooner or later will occur.

The second group will loudly sing praises for the good ol' days of vocational education programs. They will frame vocational, or what is now known as career and technical education (CTE), as what all students need – particularly students in the neighborhood schools. But educator and writer Mike Rose points out that some fear the CTE push "could lead to new forms of tracking;" while others "applaud the presence of a vocational pathway, though worry that anti-vocational biases would still stigmatize the option."

The third group may register little more than snores because they operate under the assumption that not all students are college material. Hence there is simply nothing to be done in those neighborhood schools. Here, I'd invoke a "too big to fail" argument: This would mean giving up on more than half the 16,000 students represented in the cohort. It negates our responsibility to low-income students and families. It ignores the broader social purpose of education, which is fundamental to the well-being of a democratic society. In addition, abandoning our neighborhood schools will amount to economic Russian roulette, and won't bode well for Philadelphia or for the nation's ability to compete economically.

Finally, the fourth group will insist that preparing for college is an imperative. They will likely shake their fists forcefully, declaring that the data are proof-positive that nothing short of the recently proposed blueprint for reorganizing the District will solve the problem. I would ask members of this camp to explain how the sustained changes, adequate resources, and strong will that we have to muster to create this new system of high-quality schools are any different from the sustained changes, adequate resources, and strong will we need to transform our current system of high schools.

To those who do understand the imperative of preparing students for college, I'd strongly urge us to look beyond schools at the structural inequities that undermine college readiness and recommit to a postsecondary access and success agenda for all students.

Hopeful directions

Here are a few areas of promising work that help point the way forward:

  • Defining college readiness: Researchers like David Conley have given us a broader and more comprehensive, three-pronged definition for college readiness that includes academic preparation, academic behaviors (largely study skills and self-monitoring), and college awareness. Taken together, these three components can create a system of quality services and supports for all students that spans grades 9 through 12, and foster a college-going culture in schools, districts, and communities. Philadelphia is already partnering in a number of related national access and success initiatives aimed at creating a college access system, such as the Citi Postsecondary Success Program (CPSP).

  • Identifying assets: CPSP schools and their partners in Philadelphia, Miami, and San Francisco have used an asset analysis tool to facilitate conversations and planning around college access and success. It identifies gaps and builds on assets. This approach rightly assumes schools can't do this work alone. It spotlights district practices and policies that help or hinder – and critical partners like higher education institutions, community-based organizations, and businesses that are needed to support this agenda.

  • Aligning high schools and higher ed: Schools and higher education institutions are working toward a better understanding and alignment of expectations for learning. For example, in Philadelphia, high school and college educators visit each others' classrooms using an adapted model called Instructional Rounds. This approach is producing changes in high school English classes and first-year college writing classes in two- and four-year colleges.

  • Using data: To boost college awareness, Federal Student Aid now provides high schools and partners with current data about their FAFSA financial aid submissions and completions. Updated regularly, the online tool allows high schools to track their progress and helps them ensure that their students complete this vital application. Philadelphia was a pilot city for this work.

Now, we could lament the data or devolve to pointing fingers at those we think are responsible for such low college enrollment and degree attainment.

But I strongly urge that instead we develop a shared vision of college readiness. We also need to recommit to leveraging existing and new resources toward building a strong set of quality K-12 supports that will make college a viable option, especially for the thousands of mostly low-income and first-generation students in our public schools.

To do anything less is unacceptable.

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